The first thing you should know about wildlife watching in Yellowstone is that the longer you stare at a buffalo, the less real it looks. It’s a weird phenomenon. At the first glance, it’s a lump-in-the-throat reverence for Nature and a pang of majestic appreciation set to rising violin music in your head.
But it’s quickly doomed to go all snorts and giggles once you admit that on whatever day of creation that happened, God had surely woken up in a very Jim Henson mood.
Also note: Buffalo don’t like to be laughed at. Or even looked at, really. They’re very grumpy.
If you drive any distance at all through the park, you will see a buffalo in the first half hour, unless you’re blindfolded for some Fifty Shades of Long Drives reason. By the minute hand’s next full sweep, you will have seen sixty-seven of them and the bloom is rather off the rose. Then you will begin to resent everyone who hasn’t figured this out yet. You will not be (or I will not be, anyway) kindly disposed toward all the yahoos compelled to stop for a photo of every buffalo on the horizon or, in fact, in the middle of the roadway. Honestly, they’re like squirrels. Massive, walnut-brained, irritable squirrels.
So, you’ve got your buffalo and your pronghorn antelope. Elk are neat to see and only slightly less all over the place than the bison. And whatever you do, never dip your head or extend your hand, in any way – not even to point, at a chipmunk in Montana. This is the Universal Snack Sign and you will have a rodent scaling your leg faster than you can scream.
But what everyone really hopes to see is one of the big boys. The shaggy, toothy, razor-clawed showstoppers. That’s what you’re drifting all over the yellow line and drying out your eyeballs for – a glimpse of a grizzly bear or a wolf. And you may get one, though I didn’t really. My cousin, Randall, says I’m a jinx. He could be right.
I did see both bears and wolves on our trek through Yellowstone, but at such a distance that I can only take the crowd’s word for it. Even with binoculars, it might have been a very leggy tortoise. The lady next to me was somehow positive it was a bear, but whether that was wishful thinking or a degree in zoology, I’ll never know. One roadside stop showed something dark definitely chasing a herd of elk. I’m not sure what would do that if not a wolf, so I’ll go with that. I saw an inky blur that was probably a wolf deviling a collection of deer.
But I didn’t leave the Wild West without a wolf encounter of my own. It inspired the only souvenir I brought home.
The story of wolves in Yellowstone is interesting . The short of it is that by 1940, every wolf in Yellowstone had been killed. Deemed a dangerous nuisance, it was perfectly acceptable to lace bait meat with poison or broken glass – and it worked down to the very last one. The eradication of wolves in Yellowstone caused problems that humans hadn’t had the foresight to calculate. The elk population exploded to the detriment of the all the green in Yellowstone, cutting into the pasturing for the bison. Coyotes took over as the apex predator, mostly interested in much smaller game and people’s pets. Mid-grade ecological chaos changed what the park had been meant to be.
So in 1994, the US Government put some wolves back into the park. You can read about the program here. Today, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 wolves doing their wolfy thing and restoring wolfy balance to the region.
But, of course, there aren’t any fences around Yellowstone.
On Day 8 of our adventure, we left through the west checkpoint and tucked our RV into a camp just outside the park exit in West Yellowstone, Montana. It was late in the day, so we backed in, hooked up, and walked into town for possibly the best pizza I’ve ever had in my life.
My daughters, 11 and 15, and I headed to the camp’s bath house to wash off the day – rather later than usual. We came back out at around 10:20 pm, and it was as dark as night ever gets. Montana-black is, shall we say, comprehensive. The bath house had short-reaching floodlights that abandoned us in solid pitch after about ten steps.
Julia, my oldest, kept talking even after I’d stopped our walk, my hands flung out across both girls’ middles. The wolves were so loud, she thought they were sirens. The pack happened to be unfortunately situated, by the sound of them, just on the other side of our camper. They were dead ahead of us, likely-but-not-certainly just beyond where we needed to go. And it was definitely a they, not a him, not a her, not a slightly-less-terrifying it all on its own. To get back, we had to march straight at a full-on choir practice with quite a number of distinct howly voices ringing in harmony.
I didn’t have my phone, so my choices were to sleep in the bath house or to make a run for it. A quick bit of math noted that we were already a quarter of the way there and if we didn’t come back, my husband would surely feel obligated to come out after us – with his back to the pack of wolves and quite a bit closer to them, for a lot longer than we would have to be, and all by himself.
Wolves aren’t known to be aggressive toward humans, especially humans in noisy groups. I tried to make a mantra of that terrific bit of trivia, but the howling was doing my head in. My littlest stuffed her towel into her mouth to keep from screaming. I put my hands on my girls and set off at a cheerfully chattering clip that I wouldn’t allow to turn into a run until we were within a hundred feet of the RV.
The wolves sang us home, and at the slamming of the door I was aglow with the cavewoman’s delight at not being someone else’s dinner. I drank a beer. Then a nip of whiskey.
The next morning, I related the night’s flight to the camp office.
“Was it… coyotes?” I asked, although I’ve heard coyotes in my own backyard and they sound nothing like that. And besides, an affirmative wouldn’t be exactly reassuring. Given the choice between facing down a pack of wolves or a pack of coyotes, I think I’d rather go ice-skating.
“Oh no, that was wolves,” she said.
“But they sounded as if they were right behind my RV.”
“Oh they were…” because unbeknownst to me, just on the other side of the split-rail fence from our RV slot, was the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, a rescue zoo and educational exhibit of animals that cannot, for one reason or another, be released into the wild. (It’s a great place. Definitely a must-see if you’re in the vicinity.)
I had been a mere stone’s throw from three packs of wolves, howling in the dark – caged and harmless.
I don’t know what color I turned. The lady helpfully drew a line, of sorts, under my humiliation.
“But I can’t promise they were all in cages. The Yellowstone wolves come out to talk to our wolves all the time. But I’m sure you were fine.”